As a 39 year old man, the last thought on Greg DeMarco’s mind was that he could be diagnosed with breast cancer. In October of 2010, he noticed a stain on the dark colored shirt he was wearing, but thought he must have spilled coffee without realizing it. Several days later, he noticed the stain again, and this time realized it was blood and that it was coming from his left nipple. Worried that something serious might be wrong, he scheduled an appointment with his general practitioner for the next day. They ran several tests, all of which came back normal.
Unable to find a cause for the bleeding, Greg was sent for a mammogram where a calcification and a blockage of his duct were found. Not long before, Greg’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer and perhaps, because her diagnosis was so recent, for the first time he thought it might be breast cancer. After a biopsy was done, the diagnosis came back as ductal carcinoma, a fairly common breast cancer that arises in the ducts of a gland. However, Greg did not fit the standard profile of a breast cancer patient, and because breast cancer is so rare in men, he wanted to find a specialist to manage his care.
“I wasn’t entirely shocked to hear that it was breast cancer. In a way I was relieved to finally have a diagnosis,” Greg said. “It was better to know what it was because now I could have a plan to deal with it instead of just wondering.”
Upon the recommendation of a friend, Greg sought out Dr. Anees Chagpar, Director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. Dr. Chagpar is nationally recognized for her efforts in breast cancer care and research and is a renowned breast surgeon. She explained his diagnosis in more depth and told him what to expect from his treatment. In January, Greg underwent a mastectomy, during which a sentinel node biopsy was performed to determine if the cancer had spread. Greg’s diagnosis was officially confirmed as ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning it had not yet invaded other breast tissue.
The only complication Greg experienced following surgery was with his drains not draining properly. Drains are implanted after surgery to prevent blood and lymphatic fluid from building up under the skin. He did not require chemotherapy or radiation, and today has no trace of the cancer. For Greg, it was important to figure out what was wrong, even if it meant having a mammogram. The only time he felt out of place, Greg explained, was during his appointment when he entered a waiting room full of women. ‘It was an awkward experience yes, but who knows what would have happened if I didn’t endure that one uncomfortable exam.”
Dr. Chagpar explained that about 1% of all breast cancers occur in men and that it is important for men to be aware of symptoms like bloody nipple discharge or a breast mass and not to ignore them. “It is wonderful when men are as proactive as Greg and seek medical attention for symptoms like bloody nipple discharge. Much like in women, early detection often leads to improved outcomes,” Dr. Chagpar explained.
Greg never felt like he was different, or that he had a type of disease only women can get. “I’m not the first man to have breast cancer, and I won’t be the last. I never thought of it as something that only happens to women, because it happened to me, and it happens to other men,” Greg said. He also spoke very highly of his care team, which included Dr. Chagpar, and his oncologist, Dr. Michael DiGiovanna, Associate Professor of Medical Oncology and Pharmacology at Yale Cancer Center. He commented that they were there for him every step of the way and that he had never experienced care like it before. “They made themselves available to me at all hours if I had questions. It was important to know, especially going through something like cancer, that my doctors were with me 100% of the time. We were even able to laugh together, which helped a lot.”
Greg had many welcome distractions during his recovery, the laughter of his two small children being his favorite. He talked with his sister multiple times a week to compare notes about what he was going through. The support of his wife was also a vital part to his recovery. She helped him manage his drains, but more importantly, Greg explained, her love and support helped get him through the difficult times.
He now has almost full range of motion back, enough to swing a golf club, and his advice to other men is not to wait. “If something doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor and have it looked at. It will most likely be nothing, but if it does turn out to be something, don’t let it weigh you down either. When you have state-of-the-art treatment available and a phenomenal staff to get you through, it helps you not to lose hope. Just keep laughing, and keep living.”